By Wendy Bahr, Cisco
Much has been written about teamwork and the success factors that distinguish a high-performance team from other teams that simply go through the motions. You know the high-performance teams I’m talking about. They have an aura or energy around them that raises their capabilities and makes them work stronger in a fluid, orchestrated motion. And they all share some common characteristics—they’re creative, adaptive, curious, pragmatic, analytical, and fearless, just to name a few. But I would argue there’s a key element that is often overlooked, which has an equally profound effect on high-performing teams: Diversity.
What comes to mind when you think about workplace diversity? Maybe it’s one or more of the social and cultural aspects, such as age, race, education, religion, or sexual orientation. While all are important for a well-balanced team, what I’m talking about is diversity of experience. I’ve found that teams with varied and different experiences are better at things like innovation, decision-making, and problem solving. When a team genuinely values and leverages each other’s unique work and life experiences, almost anything is possible. Let me share a story that illustrates this.
‘Storm Cuts Power’ read the headline of a local newspaper that was covering one of the worst storms to hit a corner of the Midwest. The severe weather and near-record-low temperatures caused ice to build up on the power lines of a regional power company, leaving customers without power and heat, costing the company millions of dollars in lost revenue and maintenance.
Despite iterative and ongoing repairs, the ice kept building up, and the power kept going out. Not only was it dangerous to fix the damaged lines during freezing temperatures, but customer satisfaction was steadily dropping. A permanent solution was needed—and quickly. The power company’s operations leader called an urgent meeting with their line maintenance supervisors to come up with ways to solve this problem (as it were, most of the maintenance supervisors were men, with the exception of one women). They all got in a conference room with a facilitator, who was brought in to brainstorm ideas.
The session started with some straightforward brainstorming that slowly evolved with more interesting ideas. After a couple of hours, and without a solution, the facilitator asked them to dig deeper and to bring forward their craziest ideas. Nothing was too outlandish. The crazier, the better.
Slowly, new ideas emerged:
“What if we put heaters at the base of all the towers to heat the metal and keep the ice from forming?”
“There’s a lot of wildlife around. What if we put food up in the towers so a bear will climb up and shake it, knocking off the ice?
“What if we wrapped the wires on the lines with a material that the ice couldn’t cling to?”
Now the real brainstorming caught hold and the ideas started to flow.
At one point, the only woman in the room raised her hand and said, “I don’t know if this would work, but …” It turns out, she had been a nurse during the Vietnam War, and when they brought patients in on helicopters, she noticed the wind from the helicopters would blow the leaves and twigs out of the trees as the helicopters landed. “What if we flew helicopters over our power lines to knock the ice off?” The room went dead silent.
In that instant, they all realized her diversity of experience presented a solution that would save the power company millions of dollars, significantly improve their customers’ experience, and remove the danger the field service crews faced trying in vain to repair the lines.
This story illustrates the point that if you have a team with different experiences and backgrounds, you will likely have a team that is not only diverse, but stronger. Through diversity and strength, we can drive better business outcomes, increase profitability, improve customer satisfaction, and create positive employee experiences.
This story also serves as a reminder for me to ensure that every time I have a hiring opportunity, I ask myself, “Does this candidate bring a diverse experience or perspective that will complement the team, make it better, stronger?”
I’m fortunate to work for a company who embraces this philosophy. Beginning with our CEO Chuck Robbins, who has one of the most diverse executive leadership teams I’ve ever seen, Cisco relies on the unique points of views and experiences from everyone. It’s this collective diversity of experience that helps us drive growth, delight our customers and partners, and makes our employees engaged and on top of their game.
When you’ve got a big problem to solve, look around your team. It’s likely there’s a solution tucked away in someone’s experience.
Questions or comments? Feel free to connect with me on Twitter, @wybahr.